Simon Everett reports from France on the rising from the ashes of the most iconic of inflatable boat brands.
Zodiac are back in the game! The world’s largest inflatable boat manufacturer at the time, ‘Zodiac’ became the word for an inflatable boat of whatever design, just like ‘Hoover’ is still used to describe a carpet cleaner. Wherever you went the harbour master would say ‘Oh yes, you’re in the Zodiac’ regardless of the brand plastered all over the tubes! Then, during the financial turmoil at the end of the first decade of this century, Zodiac were bought by an investment group (what a misnomer that is) that promptly asset-stripped the group, leaving the marine sector, known then as Z Marine, high and dry. In 2015, what was left of Z Marine came under the control of Dominique Heber-Suffrin, the new CEO. The turnaround was dramatic and the new Z Nautic group, which consists of Zodiac, Avon, Bombard and a new name to conjour with, AKA Marine, was born.
Dominique told me that he realised that in order to put Zodiac back in contention after such a long lay-off, they had to come back with a bang. To that end, there has been massive investment, not just in design but also in modernising production, which they are proud to announce all takes place on French soil. There has been no ‘outsourcing to China’ in a race to the lowest price. The Zodiac brand is known for premium products and that is what they will make.
The launch model, the 550 Open, is aimed at the heart of the RIB market, the most important sector for the company and where the biggest number of unit sales will come from, rather than an aspirational flagship model. Zodiac have designed the 550 Open from the ground up with a range of enhancing features available, and in doing so they have produced a striking-looking boat that makes a statement. It firmly establishes the company’s intent to once again become a major player in the RIB and inflatable market. The depth of thought that has gone into the project is evident, because this calibre of RIB is pivotal in the boating world.
A RIB in the 5.5m format is a very versatile vehicle – big enough to tackle adventurous expeditions but handy enough to manage solo and light enough to tow economically. Commercially it is a very strategic move. Rather than produce a run-of-the-mill RIB, the styling department has gone to town. The style concept runs right through the entire programme to little details, like using red for the grab lines as a styling element to lift what is otherwise a pretty mundane, if necessary, item. This aesthetic approach has been used extensively throughout, including for the options and accessories. The result is a very smart-looking RIB indeed that can be added to with purpose-designed add-ons.
Zodiac are keen to enforce the safety aspects, indeed they have deliberately shied away from going for the highest performance in favour of family safety and comfort. Extensive market research has shown that the majority of buyers are looking for family adventures and experiences from a safe, roomy platform from which to enjoy other waterborne activities, such as diving, snorkelling, towing toys, fishing and simply sharing a scrumptious picnic afloat.
With the most valuable cargo aboard, a flighty RIB is the last thing anyone needs, however exhilarating that might be. Consequently the hull has been designed to provide a steady, comfortable and stable ride. We did get a bit of chop for a short period at the peak of the tide flow, with a gentle swell mixed into the short, dancing waves that were about 2 feet high, caused by the tide racing out of the Golfe du Morbihan. It was enough to get a feel for the boat’s characteristics. The wide beam, coupled to a large collar (57.5cm), means it would require severe provocation to come anywhere near turning this boat over, but she didn’t chine-walk either, or bounce from tube to tube – not until I really overtrimmed her. There are three planing surfaces for a start, a normal Delta pad and the two exaggerated and extended chines, which are enlarged aft and extend beyond the transom by 30cm or so. Now, while that increases the wetted area and therefore the amount of drag, it provides a support layout similar to a three-point hydroplane, making the boat extremely stable. But, as already mentioned, sheer performance wasn’t a prerequisite as most people with families are quite happy to cruise at 25–30 knots even when higher speed is available.
Those chine extensions also work like two fixed trim tabs, which makes the boat easy to drive for inexperienced owners as leg trim has a reduced effect. To back up the large planing surfaces there is a deep and sharply defined strake on each side to help the linear flow and grip in turns. The hull shape and oversized tube limit the amount of lean angle in turns and make the boat even more stable at rest. With three big blokes stood on the tube the list was minimal; we didn’t have an inclinometer but it seemed like about 5 degrees – she barely moved! Now, while this will limit her agility somewhat, a 5.5m boat is hardly hampered in those stakes in the first place, so the added benefit and confidence it gives to owners and their families is seen as being of greater value, and the likes of divers and anglers will love the security this gives as a stable platform.
Zodiac want owners to keep exploring and finding their own adventures and experiences, whether that be around the headland to a secluded bay or out to a special dive site, where the fish are biting, or simply up the river to the waterside pub! For divers, swimmers and snorkellers the access to and from the water has been addressed with additional moulded platforms almost on the waterline, either side and aft of the engine, and adorned with a folding ladder, so climbing out of the water with heavy diving kit is a doddle. Even with the engine tilted up, the prop remains inside the overall length, protecting the prop and other boats while moored on often congested RIB pontoons. It has been really well thought out and looks the part too. Without the optional platforms the tubes are stopped short, with injection-moulded caps set at an angle rather than inflatable cones. This possibly makes production easier and faster than having to create a cone; nonetheless, it finishes the tube neatly.
At the other end, the 550 Open has a blunt bow, so it is actually as spacious as many 6m RIBs with a pointy bow. The overall length is actually 5.4m, which doesn’t sound much, but even with the full-sized console there is a usable amount of deck space. The console has been offset to starboard, putting the helm just off the centre line to port. The protection offered by the console and screen at the helm, with its twin bolster seating, is very good. The width of the console and height of the screen provide a large barrier against the elements without interfering with visibility.
The size of the console moulding has been well utilised to provide a generous amount of stowage, with access through an upward-hinging forward face, directly into the hull. It has been conceived to stow all sorts of gear, low down, from waterskis or wakeboards to general baggage. The stowage on board is very good, especially for her size. The console hold is supported by a generous chain locker under the bow cushion, which also gives access to the fuel filler with a spillage dam around to avoid slippery-deck syndrome. The helm bolster base is used as another gear locker and the after end has an ice chest flanked by two wet-stowage boxes.
We had a run-out to the islands and I tried several seating options. The aft bench has a hinged backrest to allow the engine to tilt and there are optional quarter seat backs that slot into the rod rests. The helm bolster is shaped for comfort and offers various seating or standing combinations, but the aluminium frames are fastened with screws into the deck, where I would prefer to see proper bolted-through retention, in addition to the bonding paste. The seat frame has a degree of flex and those screws withstand considerable force. The helm seating is versatile and comfortable, though, and the layout of the controls suits, with sufficient space between the throttle and wheel while still leaving plenty of dash for mounting instruments and electronics without having to crowd them. The best passenger seat, though, is on the tube beside the console, with the grab line and console rail to hold on to for security.
I wasn’t too sure about the positioning of the side lights right beside the stemhead roller on the bow moulding – they are vulnerable and the wiring has to be run down inside the tube. It can be seen running under the centre seam cover, but it does give the regulation 1m height separation without resorting to a mast that would hamper the ability to hinge the console forward for storage in a standard-height garage. What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.
With brand-new motors I am always a little sympathetic and like to ready the clock, then put her into gear and pause momentarily before pushing the loud stick – this avoids a massive and sudden loading of the gears. Trying speed tests across the engines available was interesting – there were minor differences but essentially there was nothing in it in terms of initial planing ability. With all that planing surface on the hull, even with the lowest-horsepower engine we had on test, the Mercury 100 4-stroke, the acceleration onto the plane was blistering – just 3.5 seconds, and carrying on to 30 knots took 14 seconds in total with a top speed of 33.4 knots. With a little more power on tap from the Yamaha F115 it was slightly quicker to plane at 3.0 seconds dead and just 11 seconds to 30 knots, but the extra power gave us 38.0 knots. The Yamaha F130 produced figures of 2.9 seconds to plane and a maximum of 38.2 knots. The Mercury 115 Pro XS had a four-bladed prop and the extra blade area that provided was interesting. The most interesting figures for me, though, came from the Yamaha F115. Being a lighter engine, the boat shot out of the hole in just 2.8 seconds thanks to the extra blade grip and ran on to 38.7 knots with three adults aboard. This boat was fitted with ‘active trim’, and while it gave a nice cruising ride, it couldn’t match the top speed of manually trimming the boat, losing out by a full 2 knots. The active trim is definitely designed for comfort, not speed, and I question the need for it on a boat like this, other than as another gadget to sell to new owners. The boat had such minimal response to trim, until you went to extremes, that it can be driven with a ‘set and forget’ attitude, especially if cruising loaded.
To sum her up, the 550 Open is a nicely conceived dayboat for families with enough turn of speed to make her interesting without being exciting. She has a great presence on the water and remains planted under normal helming situations without any sudden surprises. The range of equipment available for kitting her out is extensive and formed an integral part of the design process in expanding the capabilities from an open boat through to a stylish and fully kitted water sports or adventure exploring vehicle. Zodiac have certainly hit the water with a splash and have kept the cost competitive too, with prices starting from £21,000.
- LOA: 5.40m
- Internal length: 4.22m
- Beam overall: 2.54m
- Internal beam: 1.39m
- Dry weight (boat): 585kg
- Fuel tank capacity: 100 litres
- Tube diameter: 57.5cm
- No. of chambers: 5
- Payload: 1410kg
- Max. passengers: 12 (Cat. C)
- Horsepower: 100–130 (max.)
Yamaha F115 (3 adults)
RPM Knots Litres/hr
700 idle 2.0 1.3
1000 3.0 1.9
2000 5.1 5.7
3000 just on plane 8.4 11.4
3500 planing 16.2 12.3
4000 21.3 16.6
5000 28.2 24.9
6000 36.5 39.6
6200 38.0 40.2
Yamaha F130 (3 adults)
700 idle 2.0 1.5
1000 3.2 2.3
2000 5.9 5.4
3000 bogged 10.1 14.2
3200 plan 13.9 12.6
4000 22.7 18.5
5000 29.3 30.8
6000 36.5 46.2
6200 38.2 53.1
Mercury 115 Pro XS (3 adults)
6000 38.7 (manual trim)
36.3 (active trim)
Mercury 100 FS (3 adults)
- Stylish looks
- Modular accessory concept
- Extra reinforcement for bow tube attachment.
- Sharp edges to some aluminium fittings.
Pricey for its size.
- In Strongan PVC, standard boat only: 18,643 euros (price in pounds not yet announced)
- In neoprene, standard boat only: 21,143 euros